Girls’ volleyball: Alyssa Islas becomes youngest coach in City Section, unofficially

Van Nuys volleyball captain Alyssa Islas poses for a photo.
When her head coach stepped down before the start of the season, Van Nuys captain Alyssa Islas fulfilled many coaching duties.
(Luca Evans / Los Angeles Times)

It all became too much for Alyssa Islas, crushed with a responsibility nobody else had to bear.

One bus ride home last fall, nursing the wound of another loss, the Van Nuys captain cracked. Her aunt, suffering from uterine cancer, was dying before her eyes. Schoolwork was overwhelming, with her grades collapsing, her Van Nuys team was winless and she couldn’t get her teammates organized and it was all too much.

“I’m quitting,” Islas remembered telling the team. “I’m not coming back.”

Sure, it would’ve been loss enough had their starting setter left midseason. But the weight of a program rested largely on the braces-wearing 16-year-old’s shoulders. She was more than a player. More than a captain.


Last season, Islas was essentially Van Nuys’ coach.

“It was honestly killing her for a period of time,” junior Adrienne Mita said. “It was really hard on her.”

Two days into the 2021 fall semester, their head coach stepped down for personal reasons. Chaos ensued. The players were worried they’d miss out on a season again, after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season.

Eventually, a substitute teacher, Randy Olea, stepped in out of necessity. One problem — he had little idea how to coach indoor volleyball.

So Islas, named captain before the turmoil, decided to help take the reins.

“I wanted the girls to know,” Islas said, “that there was someone that believed in them.”

She set up a group chat, directing teammates on how to fill out their clearance paperwork. With her father, Gabe, a coach at Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences, she developed a list of drills to run at practices. She taught the team their rotations and helped coach JV games with a binder full of lineup sheets from the sidelines.

“I felt like I could just come to her with any problem I had, and she found a solution,” Mita said. “I honestly didn’t even feel like we didn’t have a coach because Alyssa was there.”

Yet internally, Islas was drowning. At the beginning of August, her mom told the family her aunt’s cancer was terminal and she had a month to live. Frustration at home bled into volleyball, where it was hard at times, Mita said, for the team to see their friend in a position of authority. Often, Islas would come home and vent to her dad that she wasn’t getting respect.

So after their fourth loss in four matches, Islas broke down in tears, telling her teammates she was done. They all urged her to stay. They realized just how much they needed her, Mita said.

“What always stopped her” from quitting, team manager and friend Nieco Erasmo said, “was the future of the team.”

Islas’ aunt played volleyball when she was younger and was one of the reasons she stuck with the sport, Islas said. In her final month, she’d tell her niece, “Don’t quit,” Islas remembered.

Two days after her aunt died on Sept. 20, Islas was back at practice.

There wasn’t a storybook ending. The players still got frustrated with one another and practices were messy. But they stuck together, winning a handful of games after starting with nothing.


“We kind of realized [Islas] was doing it for us, so we had to do the same for her,” Mita said.

This season, the weight has been lifted, with Van Nuys hiring a new full-time coach. Finally, the senior can breathe. But her influence is still there; Islas still totes that binder, Erasmo said, and functions almost as an assistant coach.

On Oct. 14, Van Nuys plays Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences. It’s a battle of dad against daughter — and coach against coach.

“He always says something when he’s coaching — ‘I’m playing chess while they’re playing checkers,’” Islas said. “I think it’s going to be the first time for both of us when we’re both playing chess, not playing checkers.”

Upsets in Southern Section league play

From the very start of the season, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon coach Stefanie Wigfall had her eye on Palos Verdes.

“I feel like they’re going to be a major problem going forward,” Wigfall said.

They were a major problem for Redondo Union in a Bay League matchup Wednesday night, knocking off the Los Angeles Times’ fourth-ranked team in four sets. Momentum carried over from a strong match against Mira Costa the previous week, coach Patrick Lynch said, taking the top-ranked Mustangs to five sets.

Three more schools took down top-10-ranked teams, with Santa Margarita sweeping Santa Ana Mater Dei in a Trinity League matchup, Newport Harbor fighting off Huntington Beach in four sets in the Surf League and Aliso Niguel beating San Clemente in the South Coast League on Thursday.